Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Spring Song - Centenary

Forrest Reid's novel The Spring Song was published in October 1916 and so this month marks its centenary. Reid's delicate, subtle work in the fantastic has often been overlooked. His prose shares some of the dreamlike qualities of the stories of his friend Walter de la Mare, and he also learned from Henry James a certain finesse in expression, without quite so much of the hesitancies and qualifications which that master often introduced. The sinister element in this book has aspects in common with James' The Turn of the Screw, but it balances the atmosphere of dread with a fervent delight in the natural world and in companionship. The following comments are from my introduction to the recent Valancourt edition of The Spring Song.

Set in the Ballinderry district of County Antrim, where Reid holidayed as a boy, The Spring Song portrays a young family on a long visit to their grandfather and aunt: one of them, the boy, Grif Weston feels wakened to the real meaning of Spring, and seems to hear the pipes of Pan. Supernatural incidents and other adventures follow and the book moves more definitely into the realm of the unseen. Yet there are also fine evocations of landscape, and well-observed portrayals of character, especially those of the children.

Reid achieves an exceptional sympathy with the intensity and individuality of the child’s view of the world. While Grif shares some typical traits and attitudes with his more practical, prosaic siblings, he also has qualities that make him seem different, just as Reid himself evidently felt different in his own family. The boy has a keen affinity with trees and nature, and a sensitivity to an unseen world, so that we understand him to be an instinctive pagan, and a dreamer of other domains: he several times seems to be on the verge of encountering another, rarer world. There is little doubt that Reid expresses through Grif his own emotions and experiences in childhood and youth, and the convictions he sustained as an adult.

The book is significant in Reid’s work as the harbinger of his most fully-achieved creation, the Tom Barber trilogy. Grif is in many ways a first, slightly more tentative, version of Tom. But already here Reid shows his ability to depict boyhood in a fully-realised way, respecting both the intense inner life of his character and the simple physical excitement found in holidays, games, pets, playmates and adventure.

The character of Palmer Dorset, an older boy, resourceful and alert, and something of an amateur detective and philosopher, provides a charming counterpoint to Grif’s dreamier qualities, and some of his good sense and intelligence probably also contributed to Reid’s development of Tom. Reid later gave Palmer Dorset his own novel, Pirates of the Spring (1919), about the dawning of friendship, and shared struggles, among four schoolboys.

The way that Reid drew, in The Spring Song, upon his own early inner life is clear from his burningly vivid recollection of his childhood, Apostate (1926). “The title was intended to indicate a state of mind,” he later recalled, implying “nothing more alarming than the reluctance of a small boy to go to church, and his “passion for humanizing things”, his pleasure in discovering river-gods, tree-spirits, and the divinities of sun and moon.”

It is more like a spiritual autobiography than a memoir of childhood events, as Reid bears witness to the “subconscious lyrical emotions” he felt as a boy. Alongside the games and hobbies of a typical twelve year old, he also led “a private life haunted by visions of beauty and the longing for an ideal companion”: the natural world of trees, rivers, the sea were “reflections of a divine world existing beyond the flux of time and fate and change”. All his best work was therefore to reflect this vision, a kind of “crying for Elysium.”

Mark Valentine

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Colonial Edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Twelve months ago I picked up a Ward, Lock colonial edition of A Study In Scarlet at the Lifeline bookfair for $20.  This time around I picked up a quite battered Longmans colonial edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes for the same price.  It has the standard Longmans colonial library boards of that time - quite bland compared to the slightly later pictorial cover Longmans used for its colonial library.

The title page is dated 1894 and the excellent Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia tells me it was published on 30 December 1894.  It's in octavo format, unlike the quarto of the 1893 Newnes first edition.

It has all the classic Sydney Paget illustrations, including this famous one of "The Death of Sherlock Holmes."  Copies of this edition seem to be quite scarce and when they do turn up are rebound or taped up like this one - the backstrip seems to be particularly fragile.

Someone must have donated their Sherlock Holmes collection to Lifeline as there were a number of scarce Sherlock Holmes items on offer - I picked up a couple of Ferret Fantasy pastiches, including An Evening With Sherlock Holmes and At the Mountains of Murkiness, a mint first edition of Michael Dibdin's The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, the Gollancz edition of Ellery Queen's Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper,  and about half a dozen books in the Gaslight Sherlock Holmes monograph series on all sorts of arcane Sherlockian subjects.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

My Bones and My Flute - Edgar Mittelholzer

The village of Aldborough, Yorkshire, is on the site of an old Roman town. A century or so ago, old ladies in the local cottages would display carved stones in their gardens and coins in their parlours for the price of a few pence admission, as well as offering teas. There is now a small museum, sadly seldom open, which has a lovely grove of trees and some monuments among them, and a mosaic kept sheltered in a shed. In the very grand parish church, in a niche, is a worn figure of Mercury, minus his wand and wings. He used to be outside and most of the detail of the statue was then weathered away.

The village was one of the Rotten Boroughs whose ancient parliamentary privileges were done away with by the Great Reform Act, but it was not quite as rotten as most of them. Whereas Dunwich, say, or Old Sarum, had only a handful of electors, Aldborough had a decent number. It is now linked to Boroughbridge, also an old town, which has, close to the nearby Great North Road, the Devil’s Arrows, amongst the largest standing stones in Britain. There is also a slightly peculiar tongue of land which is an island between the brown river Ure and the black canal. The settlement itself, though, has a pleasant, easy sort of air, with a number of cafes.

It was here recently that I found in a charity shop a copy of Edgar Mittelholzer’s My Bones and My Flute (1955), which is sub-titled “A Ghost Story in the Old-fashioned Manner”. And that is precisely what it is, but with a distinctive difference. Its setting is not in some old college quadrangle or cathedral cloister, but among the tropical back-country of British Guiana, the author’s home country.

The narrator is a young artist who has been commissioned to paint scenes from the jungle for the new offices of his patron, a timber merchant. They take a journey by steamer to a remote settlement where the company has an outpost. There are residues here of the older Dutch colonists and explorers, and also of the more ancient peoples whose land they, and the British, usurped. Something about the place has been troubling the merchant, and the narrator soon begins to think he has been lured onto the trip for another reason.

I admired the book’s swift, laconic, succinct style and the way in which the fastidious mind and haughtiness of the narrator is conveyed in his writing and in his response to other characters. The haunting element is well-achieved, starting softly and subtly, simply with the sound of a flute heard upon the steamer (but only by some), then, once the distant station is reached, building up a remorseless sense of siege. It’s well-known that good supernatural stories at novel length are hard to achieve, but this is a fine example. There are certainly also echoes here of the work of Conrad and Faulkner.

The publisher Peepal Tree Press has been championing the work of Edgar Mittelholzer for some years and currently has five of his books in print, including My Bones and My Flute, of which they say: “Amongst the barks of baboons, [and] rustles of hidden creatures in the remote Berbice forests, Mittelholzer creates a brilliantly atmospheric setting for his characters and their terrified discovery that this is not a place where they can be at home.”

The copy I found in Boroughbridge has on the fixed front endpaper a small circular ink stamp, like a postmark, which reads, in pale blue letters: “Sold By/Wm. Fogarty Ltd./British Guiana”. This is evidently a firm of booksellers and stationers, who seem to be still trading there today. I wonder how, when and in whose hands the book got from the coast of South America to the old Yorkshire town?

(c) Mark Valentine 2016

Friday, September 16, 2016

R.A. Brimmell, vintage book catalogues, M.R. James and J.S. le Fanu, etc etc

Browsing old book catalogues is a victimless crime, and while in Melbourne this week I picked up twenty-odd R.A. Brimmell catalogues from the late '50s and early '60s.  Brimmell was an English book dealer whose catalogues invariably had sections on "detective and mystery stories" and nineteenth century books with a nice sprinkling of Gothic novels and Penny Bloods.

In catalogue no. 10, 1957, he has listed a stunning association copy of le Fanu's Ghost Stories and Mysteries:

This copy ended up with US book collector Robert Lee Wolff.  In his Strange Stories: Explorations in Victorian Fiction - the Occult and the Neurotic (1971) he writes in a short section on le Fanu, "Le Fanu's own first collection appeared in 1851, Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery.  It is a very rare book, and I have the copy that belonged to M.R. James himself: almost the copy, perhaps because it links the two masters of the art."

Twelve quid seems a reasonable price, even for 1957 - in another catalogue Brimmell has a copy of R. Murray Gilchrist's The Stone Dragon for 12/6.  By way of comparison, in catalogue 39, Brimmell lists le Fanu's Willing to Die for 28 pounds.

Also for 25 pounds, in catalogue 35, an interesting collection of Gothic chapbooks:

Brimmell also regularly listed rare Penny Bloods.  In catalogue 47 he lists The Work Girls of London, Their Trials and Temptations. A Novel (Newsagent's Pub. Co. 1865) for 15 quid.

In catalogue 56 he has, also for 15 pounds, the unlikely titled The Women of London Disclosing the Trials and Temptations of a Woman's Life in London with occasional glimpses of a fast career.  This one was published by Vickers in the 1850s:

I wonder if the NPC version, like Sweeney Todd, was one of Chas. Fox's rip offs?

Here is a nice list of Penny Bloods from catalogue 54:

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Romance of Shortwave Radio Number Stations

The Romance of Shortwave Radio Number Stations (Persepolis) by R.B. Russell creates an atmosphere of mystery and melancholy using austere piano tones, found sounds and lonely, fragmented voices reciting numbers and place names in several tongues.

The album responds to a genuine enigma. For several decades, radio hams and others have located, on the short-wave dial, broadcasts of strings of numbers and other sounds, which appear seemingly at random from no known station. These have been assumed to be in some form of code, and supposed to be related to espionage or diplomacy, but they remain largely unexplained.

The recording, with its brittle and haunting pieces, captures a Cold War ambience and moves impressionistically in the borderland worlds of Eric Ambler or Graham Greene. We sense the lighter flame blue in the rain, below the street sign not on any map: we are in the world of the stranger without luggage, hat brim low, nothing to lose, silent, and staring about him. The music conveys our yearning after meaning in a domain of shadows.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Detective Story Club for Connoisseurs

The Detective Story Club was launched in 1929, with the expressed purpose of publishing the best detective and mystery novels as selected by a committee of experts. Each volume was marked with a distinctive "Man with a Gun" stamp on the cover.

In 2015, HarperCollins began reprinting the series, with new introductions.  Some of the books lean over towards the supernatural genre, even if they don't embrace it. Some of the new introductions are by noted genre authorities like Richard Dalby and Hugh Lamb.  Some of the novels are by authors well-known to genre readers, like Robert Louis Stevenson and Bernard Capes.

Here I'd like to call attention to four of the titles published so far that might be of interest to readers of Wormwoodiana.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, contains more than just the classic story.  Introduced by Richard Dalby, there are two additional stories by Stevenson ("The Body Snatcher" and "Markheim") and two additional stories by other hands (the anonymous 1890 "Untold Sequel of the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", later attributed to one Francis H. Little, and a pastiche "Dr. Jekyl" [sic] by Robert J. McLaughlin).

Called Back, by Hugh Conway, with an introduction by Martin Edwards

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, by Bernard Capes, with an introduction by Hugh Lamb

The Noose, by Philip Macdonald, son of Ronald Macdonald and the grandson of George Macdonald.  Introduction by H.R.F. Keating

The whole series is well worth looking into.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Allison & Busby Fantasic Fiction Library

In October 1986, three books appeared in trade paperback in the UK, inaugurating the "Allison & Busby Fantastic Fiction Library." Each gives unadorned texts, without any extra matter such as informed introductions or interior illustrations.  Each of the three books uses a piece of art (or a portion thereof) from the previous century as cover art.  The art is not especially compatible with the book on which it appears, but it isn't horrendously incompatible either.  The books are:

Lilith, by George Macdonald, with the cover art from "Pandora" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Purple Cloud, by M.P. Shiel, with cover art from"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt

A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay, with cover art "The Glacier of Rosenlaui" by John Brett.  Sadly the text of the novel, though re-set, follows that of the corrupt 1963 Macmillan edition, which was line-edited by the publisher, resulting in literally thousands of changessome merely punctuational but a large number are word changes and rephrasings that alter Lindsay's text.

And with these initial releases, the series died. Alas. Allison & Busby had been founded in 1967 by Clive Allison and Margaret Busby.  In 1987 the firm was acquired by W.H. Allen, Ltd. According to Margaret Busby this represented "finally succumbing to the exigencies of being penniless."  Whether the fantasy series died before or after the acquisition is not known.